If New York City is one of the great cultural capitals of the world, irony may be its most valuable currency. There is a fashionable modern harlequin that roams the streets of Williamsburg, East Village, and beyond, living in a charmed world where what’s out is in and what’s in can be improved with a pair of scissors. Hipsters have drawn the ire of a number of commentators who have called them the ‘dead end of Western Civilization,’ the ‘assassins of cool,’ and most recently in a piece in The New York Times’s Opinionator by Christy Wampole, the wellspring for an epidemic of irony that has “leaked from the realm of rhetoric into life itself.”
To be sure, I’m prone to sympathize with this strain of critique. My fellow 20-somethings mystify me regularly, forcing me to read exactly the opposite of the statements they appear to be making. I see an I ♥ NY T-shirt, I read please leave my city, tourists. When I see an oversized knitted sweater or a pair of prescription-less Ray-Bans, I know with certainty their wearer bought neither because she is a hapless fan of outdated fads. Rather, these accessories are signifiers, exuding an aloofness to the identities they represent. I am uncategorizable, they try to say.
Wampole’s reaction is perfectly understandable. Hipster insincerity, her argument goes, threatens to become so utterly paralyzing, everything is left vulnerable to parody. The act of mimicking becomes, by definition, an act of mockery. She writes:
As a function of fear and pre-emptive shame ironic living bespeaks cultural numbness, resignation and defeat. If life has become merely a clutter of kitsch objects, an endless series of sarcastic jokes and pop references, a competition to see who can care the least…it seems we’ve made a collective misstep.
But a ‘collective misstep?’ A ‘competition to see who can care the least?’ Where Wampole’s description of life with irony turns into a moral call to bring an end to it is where she makes her own misstep. It is by now a cliché for generation x to slap generation y on the wrist for a transgression they too once committed. Because of the generational gap between Wampole and the hipsters she draws spirited critique against, she makes herself vulnerable to exactly Jen Doll’s critique in The Atlantic: ‘Before trucker caps and skinny jeans’ were around, we were talking about ‘ironies of a different time and a different look.’ There’s nothing really new about ironic living, Doll argues, and Wampole’s ‘cry for earnestness seem a bit dated.’
So we have here two poles. Wampole: an earnest, albeit somewhat patronizing irony vigilante, and Doll: the anti-pearl-clutcher, insisting, in her own words, that, ‘life in the Internet age isn’t ironic anymore than anything else is, really, it’s just life.’
Irony is clearly a response to something that displeases us, whether that be Guy Fieri or that girl from highschool dressed like a Hollister catalog. But does irony have the timelessness Doll allows it (she cites Socratic and dramatic ironies)? After all, if hipsters are symptomatic of the sea of brands and labels we float in, what was irony before the advertising capacity to reproduce, a thousand times over, one image with the potential to hold our adoration and trust? In order to be ironic, there has to be something with universal symbolic power to be ironic against, and this aspect of Wampole’s essay is where she has the strongest footing.
Perhaps living with irony is a novelty of the twentieth century, the onslaught of the mass-produced image, the glitz and glamor of a version of the world portrayed through a television screen. A task as simple as putting together an outfit suddenly becomes a matter of brand loyalty. If there is one way to avoid this mass superficiality without resorting to hermitage in the woods, it is by wearing every brand at once, representing every possible identity and every fashion trend from the past and present on your physical being at the same time. Enter, the hipster.
What if we go back in time — further back than the anti-establishmentarianism of the punk movement or the free-spirited altruism of the hippies — all the way back to a single person who responded to modernism with a taste of its own poison: Pablo Picasso. Picasso was perhaps the first hipster. His work was provocative in a way that inspired the most conservative art critics of his day to write strongly worded reviews decrying the corrosion of modern art. Other than those detractors, Wampole has few peers.
A Pioneer in Irony
There is an enormous canvas by Picasso that hangs at the MoMA called Three Women at the Spring. White robes drape over the women’s bodies. Their hands rest in their laps with a Hellenistic elegance. Yet the neoclassicism is imperfect. Their fingers and toes are thick and their faces angular. If this is meant to be a classical painting, there is clearly something amiss. Picasso painted it in the summer of 1921, and was by this time already recognized as the world’s preeminent modernist painter. To be sure, there were a number of French artists during this time who painted in a neoclassical style, perhaps attempting to return their war-torn country to the grandeur of the classical period. Yet Picasso had different intentions. The women in Three Women at the Spring are ashen faced and oversized, almost cartoonish. They are so statuesque that they appear clumsy on canvas.
In this painting, Picasso was probably not expressing nostalgia for the classical period. Rather, he deployed pastiche as a subversive technique, painting and collaging an unflattering version of the world around him, often to the chagrin of his critics and contemporaries. Picasso was a wily appropriator of other artistic styles, a world-class counterfeiter. In Three Women at the Spring he was doing what he did best, betraying all that was serious about modern art to reveal its awkward awareness of itself, and its attempt to maintain a single identity despite the whirlwind of styles and influences threatening to break to the surface. Picasso bothered with none of it. He assembled a canvas much like hipsters assemble a wardrobe: by conceding that he could not give himself up to one of these styles and instead including them all with a kind of ironic hat tip.
Picasso the Pasticheur
This was a mode Picasso operated in throughout his life, soaking up traces of every work of art he encountered and scattering it among his own paintings. Although arguably a pasticheur since he began painting, the neoclassical period gave art critics the opportunity to recognize his tendency toward collage in earnest — not just as the act of placing scraps of paper onto a canvas, but too the pasting together of a range of artistic styles and symbols. In other words, Picasso was one of the first modern masters to make irony part of his modus operandi, what today has become so commonplace that, as Wampole puts it, “advertising, politics, fashion, television: almost every category of contemporary reality exhibits this will to irony.”
And yet, this pioneer of irony, the original hipster you might say, was confronted with criticism at every turn. At the end of the First World War, living in the ravaged city of Paris and deprived of the company of his closest friends, Picasso’s art entered a transitory period, ultimately leaving analytical Cubism behind and adopting the neoclassical style now on display in the MoMA. All the great pillars of art history Picasso had learned to mimic as a young student resurfaced in his paintings, prompting some critics to say that the real Picasso had somehow veiled himself behind this stylistic bric-a-brac. After viewing a solo Picasso exhibition in 1919, the critic Roger Allard remarked that he saw everything on display: “Everything, including Leonardo, Drer, Le Nain, Ingres, Van Gogh, Cezanne, yes everything…except Picasso,” (quoted in The Picasso Papers). As minotaurs and nymphs began to grace Picasso’s canvases, his public became bemused and bewildered. It seemed he had abandoned the project of Cubism and was now wandering without direction amid an assemblage of classical motifs.
A Reason to Sound the Alarms?
Irony, some have said, seems the dark underbelly of modern art, making everything that is supposed to be serious and authoritative appear awkward and self-deprecating. As art historian Rosalind Krauss puts it, pastiche is modernism’s “guilty conscience.” Just as today’s hipster inhabitants of college campuses and city streets are disdained for a perceived lack of seriousness, so was Picasso’s art besieged for its seeming empty homages to artists that came before. So what can we glean from this curious parallel between the birth of pastiche in modern art and the creep of irony into trendy Williamsburg?
Irony is a brilliant and provocative technique. Without having to speak a word, an ironic image can convey deep resentment or profound mockery. Irony can be utterly puzzling because it is best when disguised so thoroughly and so meticulously by a mantle of sincerity that we don’t quite know if we’re supposed to laugh or not. What does the Oxford shoe or the Hello Kitty backpack do? The hipster uses them to distort a symbol we are familiar with by replicating it where it is out of context, depriving it of its original symbolic meaning. In other words, irony begins to transform our world of symbols with clearly designated meanings to a world of free-floating signifiers. Perhaps the reason it is the hipster mantra lies in its power to do this.
Trying to make a pragmatic argument about the dangers of ‘living with irony,’ Wampole has gotten herself into very deep waters, as evidenced by the 600+ comments her essay triggered and a barrage of tweets. Contrary to what some of her critics say, I believe irony does have a history that has been chronicled by the artists and pasticheurs of the last century. Should we sound the alarms and blame the millennials for the decline and fall of earnestness? Although it can be tempting to do so, it might be about as useful as calling Picasso a counterfeiter, which, I’ll add, has been done, but only ironically.